Sunday, May 04, 2014

El Maíz Cabanita: El Lampeo (Helping the Plants Grow)

Four weeks after planting, the green shoots of the maize plants are already poking through the soil, giving a verdant appearance to the otherwise dry countryside that won't see significant rain until at least December. The next part of the cultivation cycle is the lampeo, whose purpose might be described as giving the maize plants a helping hand to keep growing. The word is derived from lampa (regional Spanish meaning spade or shovel), and it occurs when the maize plants are about one foot tall, around a week after they have been watered as part of the latest irrigation cycle. The main activity involves walking along the rows between the plants and using a spade to scoop earth onto the plants on each side of the row. This has a dual purpose: it surrounds the vulnerable green shoots with a supportive mound of earth; and it also removes any weeds that are beginning to encroach into their space.

Given that it involves continuous bending over and digging with a shovel, the lampeo is hard work, and ideally a team of five to six men will work together to complete a single medium-sized chacra or a couple of small ones (I was the sixth member of the team in the photo above). The aim is usually to start early, before sunrise if possible, and to work for no more than 5 to 6 hours, finishing by mid morning. The lampeo has some similarities to the solay in that the owner of the chacra will usually prepare chicha for the workers and will offer them a bowl of caldo before they head out to work. The women arrive at the chacra around mid-morning with food, more chicha and perhaps some beer or other alcohol, and there is a mini-celebration after the work is finished.

Overall, the lampeo is less ceremonial and social than the solay but less pure hard work than the harvest. It is unique in that it is one of the few activities during the cultivation cycle that is carried out with purely with human labour and does not involve any animals. I guess that's a reminder that although maize cultivation in the area goes back well into the pre-Incan period, even some of its most “traditional” aspects are strongly influenced by Spanish colonisation. There's a saying in the Peruvian sierra that “the bull is the best thing the Spanish ever brought” and I imagine donkeys and mules would follow somewhere behind (llamas can be used as pack animals but are out-performed by mules, and they are generally not suitable for agricultural work). After a few hours of back-stiffening work with a spade during the lampeo you can certainly appreciate the overall contribution that animal power makes to the maize production process.

Monday, November 04, 2013

A Brief Litany of Labour Abuses in Peru

A person I know recently told me about  the case of a friend of hers, who was working as an apprentice employee of a large train operator in a Peruvian tourist centre. While working for the train operator, the friend made a mistake on the, apparently rigid and unforgiving, Amadeus reservation system, and was docked $20 USD (from her monthly part-time pay of $150 USD). Such mistakes apparently need to be corrected through an unwieldy bureaucratic process involving the physical movement of pieces of paper; yet they are fixable.

I'm not sure the practice of 'discounting' worker's wages for mistakes they make that result in losses is ever legal, anywhere, and it's certainly not right. A worker never receives the full positive benefit of transactions that they undertake successfully - so why should they ever have to bear the cost of unsuccessful ones? Although the practice is abusive, it's perhaps understandable that it is common in small and informal businesses where profit margins are very small. But this example comes from a large, formal business, part of a multinational operation that makes millions of dollars in profit.

This has inspired me to document some of the other labour abuses that I hear of from time to time in Peru. I'm not sure which of these result from violation of existing laws and regulations, and which are actually legal under Peru's notoriously 'flexible' labour legislation, but putting them in a list is a start:
  • A person has been working for a government ministry for 4 years, doing the same job, on a series of fixed-term contracts. Each year, her contract has been terminated, and then she has been invited to re-apply at the start of the next year. This means she has none of the rights of a formal employee. She is apparently considered a 'consultant', but her pay is not commensurate with this status, she has to keep fixed work hours, and she has little to no liberty in how she does her job.
  • Employees of a regional government office are required to 'swipe in' and 'swipe out' with an electronic fingerprint recognition system, every time they leave the building. Bear in mind that these are professionals with positions of responsibility, who are frequently required to attend meetings - yet they are treated like the most lowly production line workers. Someone else I know who worked in a local government office reported that arriving even 10 to 15 minutes late for work can result in being docked (already low) wages.
  •  Teachers at a rural technical institute were required to sign a contract saying they will provide remedial classes for a certain number of hours for students who are failing. These are to be provided outside normal working hours. Yet, instead of paying the teachers overtime, the institute has told the teachers that they must negotiate payment directly with the students. Because most of the students come form low-income families, they will not be able to pay much. The teachers will officially be required to provide an additional 50 hours tuition for approximately S/.60, a marginal rate of pay worse than any shoeshine boy or street vendor.
  • At the same institute, there are no text books or resources for preparing class materials and teachers have to spend their own money on printing and photocopying. Further, for their annual evaluation, they are required to present a folder of material including print copies of a couple of standard 100-page policy documents, resulting in a cost of approximately S/. 50 (from a monthly after-tax salary of S/. 1,150)  - i.e. they are paying about 5% of their wage for the privilege of having a performance review.
  • A waitress in a restaurant in a provincial centre works on weekdays from 8am to 4pm and is paid S/.300. Although she also gets provided food this is less than one half of the official full time minimum wage of S/. 750, which itself is barely at a subsistence level. This is a popular eating place for workers in the health, education and NGO sectors, because they can eat reasonably well at a low price, suggesting that the value of their own low wages is being subsidised by workers on the next tier down.
  • Most of the small travel agencies and tour operators in Arequipa are at least partially staffed by students undertaking their required practical experience. Such interns are legally required to be paid a wage, but this is almost universally ignored, and most do not get lunch or bus money either. (This is one case at least where formal labour legislation is being violated, but as far as I can tell there is no interest in enforcement, and neither do the educational institutions that these students attend seem interested in the situation).
I'm sure there will be many more, and more egregious, examples that I'll be able to list over time. For now, it's worth noting that the above examples do not all come from informal, sweatshop-style businesses but several are from large companies or the public sector - which you would think would set an example for decent working conditions.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

La Primavera Chola

A couple of short topical posts coming up.

An interesting development in Peru in the last week is the widespread public disgust, and the protest action led by the young, educated middle classes, at the apparent collusion by parties in Parliament to appoint a series of party hacks to important public positions including the People's Defender (Defensoria del Pueblo), Constitutional Tribunal and Reserve Bank.

The appointments have been described as a repartija ("doling out).  The outgoing People's Defender expressed dismay at the perception that his office was being sold off and would thereby lose credibility and independence.

However, already the outcry and protests have caused President Ollanta Humala and other party leaders to express disappointment and dissatisfaction at Parliament's choices - despite the fact that they were all probably involved in stitching up the deal - and for many of the nominated individuals to indicate they will not accept their posts and suggest that a new nomination process be held.

 Protest action is of course extremely widespread in Peru; what is interesting about this movement is that it's not directly tied to resource or labour conflicts and there are no clear material interests at stake,. Rather, it is driven by a general sense of dissatisfaction with the corruption and manipulation of the political class.

These protests have already been semi-jokingly described as "La Primavera Chola", (the only short translation would be "Andean Spring", but this link provides some, though incomplete and not very well translated, context); and they have been linked with the huge protests in Brazil during the Confederations Cup and the ongoing student-led demands in Chile for improved public education.

What has happened in Peru is of course on a much tinier scale than those movements, but it does have significance. Along with the narrow defeat of the recall movement against social democratic Lima mayor Susana Villarán and the decision not to grant a pardon to imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori, it may be seen as representing the 'green shoots' of a more democratic and accountable politics in Peru.Time will tell.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Maiz Cabanita: El Solay/La Siembra (Planting Season) 2

The day of the solay doesn't start so early, around 7:30-8:00 (perhaps one reason why it was the aspect of the cultivation cycle I participated in most). The workers gather at the house of the person who is doing the planting, and everyone is served a bowl of caldo, thick soup, as well as a large glass of chicha, the first of many during the day.

The men then head off to the chacra. There needs to be enough hands to herd two teams of bulls, carry the pero or plough, lead the horse, mule or donkey that will be used to majonear, and take a porongo or 20-litre plastic container of chicha. I was responsible for all of these tasks on different days. The dense wood of the pero is carried balanced over the shoulder, and doesn't seem to weigh much at first, but after about 15 minutes it starts to become heavier (especially when heading uphill over uneven terrain), and when the chacra is a long way away it can feel like carrying one's own personal cross.

The work during the morning varies, depending on what kind of preparation there has been prior to the day of planting, and what condition the chacra has been left in after the previous year. If the chacra has not already been ploughed by a tractor, it's necessary to plough and majonear twice to prepare the earth for planting. Sometimes, if a small chacra is to be planted as well as another medium-sized one in the same day, the small one may be planted in the morning, somewhat guiltily, without ceremony. Often there's work to be done in filling in the gaps in the terrace walls where animals have been allowed to wander in and out during fallow season. If the chacra is in stony terrain, rocks and stones need to be gathered up. Usually, there's the tough job of fighting back the grass that has invaded the border of the chacra. If this hasn't been done thoroughly the previous year, and the grass has made its way into the centre of the chacra, this task can continue into the afternoon.   

Every half hour or so, someone will serve all his fellow workers a big glass of chicha. Coca leaves and sometimes jampi (herbal licor) will also be shared around. The chicha and the coca seem to gradually  banish pain and tiredness: there were several days when I barely managed to get out of bed to make it to the solay, but by mid-morning was feeling relaxed and relatively energetic.

Around 11:30-12:00 midday, the women arrive. This will be the owner of the chacra, or the owner's partner, plus her relatives or comadres. They have been cooking back in the village and will bring food for lunch as well as chicha for the rest of the day. Sometimes other friends will arrive around this time as well, bringing gifts, usually alcoholic: beer, wine, pisco, champagne and rum may be added to the chicha and jampi.

Lunch is served, the men and women sitting apart in different groups. Lunch during planting is usually sumptuous: the owner of the chacra will want to make sure that their workers and guests are well fed and happy.

After lunch is the centrepiece of the solay, the mocco tinkay,which could perhaps be translated as "seed blessing ceremony". Mocco is Quechua for seed, while the tinka, which in Cabanaconde has been hispanicized into the verb tinkar, is the act of splashing what one is drinking, generally onto the earth, although cattle or other objects can also receive a tinka.

For the mocco tinkay, the men gather in a semi-circle, always facing towards Hualca Hualca, the apu tutelar, or mountain god, of Cabanaconde. The owner of the chacra and/or those responsible for ploughing take pride of place at the left side of the semi-circle. The women sit or crouch in another loose semi-circle, facing the men, while the seeds that will be planted are placed on a lliclla (blanket) in front of them. One of the women, usually the youngest, will serve each of the men in turn with a glass of everything that has been brought. Obligatory are chicha, jampi and pito: chicha mixed with various cereals including barley, maca and kiwicha. Cigarettes and coca are also passed around. As each person is handed the glass, they will splash a little on the ground, perhaps making an invocation to the pachamama or to Hualca Hualca, and then drink the rest.There will be conversation and jokes, and in larger events, someone may be especially designated to play the clown.

The women then turn to face the seeds, and it's their turn to sample some of every drink. When this is done, the seeds will be organized into bundles and one of the women will deliver these to the men who will be doing the sowing. This is known as to levantar la semilla, literally to lift up the seeds.

Once the ceremony is completed, it's time to work. The two yuntas plough the chacra, while those responsible for sowing the seeds follow behind. In some cases, a further person will add natural fertiliser from sacks of guano de isla, ground up bird droppings from the Peruvian coast. Finally, others may continue to gramear, or clear the grass from the chacra. As described in the previous post, it's expected that both the ploughing and sowing will be done by men, while women and children can participate  in the remaining tasks. The gender division is fairly unique to Cabanaconde: in other parts of Peru, and even elsewhere in the Colca Valley, women scatter the seeds, but as many have commented, a peculiar kind of machismo predominates in Cabanaconde.

 The final act of the day is to serve the alsa. This is kind of a picnic that is spread out on llicllas, as in the photo above. The base ingredient is toasted maize, and to this are added olives, cheese, fried pastry, cold meat, and ideally, small dried fish sourced from the Laguna de Mucurca, a large lagoon in the mountains above Cabanaconde. The alsa is considered a great delicacy, and people who remain in the village will often ask you to bring them back some if you are going to the solay.

By the end of the day, most of the participants will be slightly drunk, especially if the owner has prepared a particularly strong batch of chicha, or if people have brought lots of additional beer and liquor. In the best cases, everyone will be relaxed and happy, and there will be lots of joking and ribaldry. This was the case in the solay of Javier and Angelica (also attended by a group of French tourists as part of the Cabanaconde Turismo project), pictured below in one of my favourite photos.

Monday, May 06, 2013

The Art of Adobe

Wherever you go in the rural villages of Peru's sierra you will see many or most houses made of adobe mud bricks. They are usually small, squat, with a couple of tiny windows and an unattractive roof of corrugated iron (calamina), sometimes held down by small rocks. They are practically a symbol of poverty and what is considered backwardness.

Yet, just preparing the basic materials for such a dwelling is a skilled and subtle task. The other week I had the opportunity to watch and assist with the making of adobe bricks. I was visiting an elderly couple who live in their little plot of land about 30 minutes walk from Cabanaconde.When I arrived I found them in the chacra above their house, with three other men who were helping make the adobes. There were already about 300 bricks laid out in rows. They needed to make a total of 900 to build a basic greenhouse where they would grow vegetables and herbs.

The first step in making adobes is to make the mud. This might sound simple, but apparently the mixture is quite hard to get right. Too much water and the adobe becomes brittle when dry, with cracks forming in the bricks. Too little, and it is "dead", not sticky enough to mould into bricks. To the mud mixture is added ichu, Andean straw grass, which will help hold together the bricks. The mixture needs to be turned over twice and then left to "mature" for one to two days.

The process I saw to make the bricks involved the following. First, an area of mixed mud had to be loosened a little with a pick. This was then shovelled into a wheelbarrow,which was wheeled over to the row of existing adobes. The mud was dolloped into a double-sided mould, where one of the workers compressed, smoothed, and added more mud until the mould was packed full. After the worker ensured that there was a little space on each side of the divider in the middle of the mould, this was pulled away to reveal two fresh adobe bricks. The bricks would then dry and harden in the sun over a number of days.

What I've always found interesting and ironic is that the poorest and most humble people are often masters of a range of arts and crafts. Just for example, saddling and securing a load to a donkey or mule, ploughing and sowing, expanding and maintaining agricultural terraces, are all practices that have many subtleties, often require precision combined with considerable strength, and are best learnt from an early age. The average farmer or agricultural labourer will be master of most or all of these tasks, and will often have a greater range of skills - you could even say greater total skills - than many people with specialized roles in the modern economy. This is why I think it's misleading to talk about  them as having "unskilled" or "unqualified" occupations.

The difference that leads to "higher productivity" in the modern economy, is the system or machine, that pulls together the disparate tasks of individuals. In an economy based on small-scale household production, there's not much point in having specialists, say, someone who just builds and repairs agricultural terraces - there wouldn't be enough work. To make this worthwhile you need some kind of organization to scale things up - I imagine that the Incan Empire, for example, did have workers highly specialised in shaping and fitting stonework.

The other difference is the use of technology. I don't think it's correct to say that the traditional peasant economy uses little technology, because all of the practices I've described above are technologies, in the sense of being practical applications of human knowledge. Rather, the difference is in the kind of technologies used. "Modern" production practices tend to make more use of systematic measurements and explicitly-defined techniques, instead of or complementary to personal skill and judgement. There's a lot of potential for such"scientific" approaches to strengthen and improve traditional practices, as long as this is done with understanding and respect for the existing strengths of those practices. Again, I'm pretty sure the Incas and their predecessors did take these approaches.

The other thing which makes modern technologies so much more productive than their traditional counterparts is the intensity which which they, directly or indirectly, make use of the energy provided by fossil fuels.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Maiz Cabanita: El Solay/La Siembra (Planting Time) 1

The highlight of the agricultural calendar in Cabanaconde is El Solay or La Siembra, the planting season. The expression solay is unique to Cabanaconde and I understand it to be some kind of linguistic hybrid (it's neither Spanish nor Quechua). The classical Quechua expression would be sara tarpuy (literally, maize planting), and this is also used in Cabanaconde, albeit within parentheses.

The solay starts in early August. Each chacra is planted around a week to 10 days after receiving its last round of irrigation water. For planting, the earth must be turned over  and smoothed down (majoneado) twice, before in the third ploughing cycle the seeds are scattered into the furrows, which are then smoothed over for the final time. The traditional practice is to do all this in a single day with teams of bulls. However, nowadays in most cases where the chacra is accessible, people will have the first two rounds of ploughing done by tractor 1-2 days before planting. The tractor isn't considered precise enough for planting itself, but provides an efficent and less labour-intensive way of preparing the earth.

A related task during planting time is to gramear, to clear the grama or grass away from the edge of the chacra. The wiry local grass that forms the borders of the chacra is tough and invasive, and if left alone will work its roots into the soil and compete with the maize. Depending on how well the borders have been cleaned the previous year, this can be tough work: some work with pick, shovel and bareta to cleanly redefine the borders of the chacra, while others follow behind, gathering up the uprooted grass and tossing it away. In some places it is also necessary to rebuild the walls of the terraces with stones and clods of earth, a task known as to pircar. Gaps that have allowed animals to wander in and out (desirable during the fallow season) must be closed over during cultivation.

Planting is very labour-intensive: for a medium or large chacra or several smaller ones, you generally need two teams of bulls, plus a donkey, mule or horse to majonear. Each team of bulls requires someone to guide the bulls, someone to plough, someone to scatter the seed, and sometimes someone to scatter natural fertiliser (usually guano de ave, made from bird droppings sourced from the Peruvian south coast). You also need someone to lead the donkey/horse/mule and someone to ride the majona. To make best use of time, it's preferable to start the majoneando while the bulls are still ploughing, which means that someone other than the ploughing team needs to do this. Therefore, a regular day's planting can require at least eight workers.

This is complicated by a fairly strict gender role division in Cabanaconde. The two most skill-intensive tasks - ploughing and scattering the seed - traditionally must be performed by males. To be fair, ploughing requires considerable strength. However, scattering the seed could technically be performed as well or better by women, but according to local custom this would be inappropriate and could bring bad luck. Guiding the bull should also be done by a male, although it's quite common for a (male) child to do this.

No one really cares who scatters the fertiliser or does the majoneando, although a child or someone of lighter body weight is often the preferred choice for the latter task if a donkey is the only animal available. Meanwhile, the main role of the women is to prepare food and chicha for all the workers and bring it out to the chacra in time for lunch (although the men will usually take a supply of chicha when they head out in the morning). All and sundry will help with clearing the grass.

Traditionally, the large number people required at planting time wasn't a problem, as this was resolved through ayni, the reciprocal exchange of labour. People would help out their family and neighbours, and then when it was time for them to plant, the favour would be returned. People will tell you that ayni has largely disappeared from Cabanaconde, but it is still practised a bit at planting time. I estimated that at least a third of the people I worked with during the solay last year were doing it as a favour, to their family members or their compadres. Of course, they and others who pitched in were also incentivised by the plentiful food, chicha and liquor on offer.

The balance needs to be made up by paid labour. In some cases, this means hiring a team of bulls and their owner. The bulls cost S/.30, the owner gets S/. 20 himself for a day's work, and the bulls must also be provided with a large bundle of chala, or maize stalks, which is valued at around S/. 15. When people have small plots of land scattered around the countryside, and similar inputs are required for each one, it's easy to see how the costs of cultivation can escalate.

Even with a day's wage being paid, during last season's solay there were complaints that it was difficult to get people to work in the chacra, given the competing offers of non-farm work in various construction and local government projects, which paid from S/. 45 to S/. 70 per day. No hay gente! was a phrase I heard more than once.  The labour shortage, along with the fairly strict gender roles, were among the reasons why I, despite being an almost complete incompetent, was able to take such an active part in the solay last year.

There's so much to say about the solay that I'm going to split it across two posts. The next post will describe the actual course of events during a day of planting.

Monday, March 04, 2013

What I Miss: New Zealand vs. Peru

Over the past five or six years, I've divided my time between New Zealand and Peru. I've generally made a lot of effort to get back to Peru, and when I'm there I don't really feel homesick. This might be because I've always been there on a fixed term - if it became permanent I might feel differently. However,there are always a few things about New Zealand I miss when I'm away. Conversely, when I'm back in New Zealand there are specific things I miss about Peru, apart from the general reasons for wanting to go back.

As will be seen, there are specific foods I miss about both places when I'm in the other place. Peruvian cuisine is varied and often delicious, but there are a few things you just can't get.

What I miss about New Zealand when I'm in Peru

Fish and chips - terribly unhealthy and you can't have them too often, but there's nothing like a serving of serving of greasy fish and chips, and I occasionally get a craving for them. Ironically, chips (papas fritas) are very popular in Peru, but they're just not the same.

Asian cuisine - New Zealand's cities are full of Indian, Malaysian, Thai, Cambodian, Japanese and Korean restaurants - often cheap, and generally good to excellent. It's not just Peru, but Latin America as a whole, where it's near impossible to find good Asian food (Peru at least has chifa, its version of Chinese food, and there are some reputable Japanese places in Lima).

English breakfasts - there's nothing like a big plate of eggs, bacon, mushrooms, hash browns, tomatoes and toast with butter, especially after a night out. Most cafes in New Zealand do something like this, and some do it brilliantly (Kelburn Cafe in Wellington springs to mind). In Peru, the closest thing is what they call 'American breakfast', but almost everything is not quite right. The eggs are dry and scrambled without milk, 'ham' is something that has barely made the acquaintance of a pig, and the toast is from aerated pan de molde that crumbles at first touch. Having said that, my mouth waters at the thought of a 'German breakfast' from El Turco in Arequipa!

The coffee. Peru is a notable coffee exporter, and a blend from Sandia in the Puno region recently won an international prize for best organic coffee. However, it's hard to find a decent espresso coffee (there's a couple of places in Arequipa that I haunt) and strong espresso with milk (flat white, latte or cappucino) doesn't really exist. Every so often, I really miss this aspect of Wellington!

Clean and green spaces - Peru is full of wonderful natural spaces. Unfortunately, wherever people live or anywhere near main roads there is usually significant litter scattered about - the exceptions being tourist sites and some upper middle class neighbourhoods. It's a serious and growing problem, especially as economic growth occurs and consumption of plastics and other durable materials increases. New Zealand also has environmental problems and is nowhere near as pristine as the tourism campaigns make out. However, most urban and rural areas are free of actual litter.

What I miss about Peru when I'm in New Zealand

Cebiche: my mouth just waters every time I think about it. Slices of raw fish or shellfish marinated in a little lemon juice and chili, served with red onion,  canchita (toasted corn kernels), camote (flat sweet potato), perhaps with some seaweed, and ideally washed down with beer. In New Zealand, at parties and potlucks people sometimes offer something they call 'cevish' (pronounced as if the correctly spelled word were French). This tends to be chunks of lightly boiled fish floating in coconut milk On these occasions I have to resist the temptation to be a boor.

Menus: in Peru, all but the finest restaurants will offer a menu or set meal, at least for almuerzo, the main meal in the middle of the day. This is usually extremely cheap, and will incude a soup or starter, main course, drink and sometimes dessert. As an example, there's a place around the corner from where I stay in Lima where you can get a starter of a stuffed avocado, followed by a main course of seco (meat stewed with coriander) and beans in a hearty sauce, served with rice and complementary chili and lemon. All for S/. 8 (around $4 NZD).

Pisco: in my view, there's no mixed drink anywhere better than a good pisco sour. With a good quality pisco and a skilful bartender, it simultaneously dances all over your taste buds, loosens your tongue and gives you a warm, happy feeling, In New Zealand, the only accessible pisco most of the time is what I bring back.

General knowledge crossworld puzzles: I'm addicted to the crossword in La Republica,which is based on a mixture of clues and pictures: you have to recognise the people or places in the images, and fill in the clues based on a mixture of synonyms, general knowledge, geography, actors, artists, musicians, politicians, sportspeople, Greek and Roman mythology and alphabets, and common words from English, French, Portuguese, German, Italian, Russian and Quechua. The lower brow papers also have these kind of puzzles, useful for when La Republica isn't accessible.

The unpredictability: when people have asked me why I keep coming back, I think about it for a while and come up with this. Strange and surprising things happen continuously, and it's often a bit of a puzzle exactly what has happened, let alone why. These can be unfortunate or upsetting things, but they're almost always interesting. You truly learn something new every day. My perspective is of course biased, and in many ways this is a good thing, but New Zealand often seems to be running on autopilot.